Close-up of the tourbillon movement of Jaeger-LeCoultre's Duomètre á Sphérotourbillon, from SIHH 2012
A trade fair can be a dire prospect. Unless, that is, you're one of the select few invited to the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) in Geneva, Switzerland. The scene at the show last week was that of a five-star boutique hotel, with elegant interiors, subdued lighting, champagne bars and fine-dining options - and that was just the foyer.
The intimate event focused on only the top-end watchmakers, most belonging to the Richemont luxury group's stable, including IWC, Cartier, Ralph Lauren watches, Piaget and Van Cleef & Arpels. Audemars Piguet was another stand-out, yet it couldn't match the lustre of the Cartier boutique, which aimed the spotlight on its Grand Complication Skeleton pocket watch.
An exceptional piece, the white-gold Skeleton is the epitome of classic style with its 1930s-inspired numerals, an integral element of the movement design. It comes mounted on an art deco rock crystal and obsidian base, transforming it into a contemporary offering with modernist beauty. Overall, it's testament to creative, rather than straightforward, use of an incredible archive.
The brand also added to its iconic Tank range with the launch of the new Anglaise. It completes a trio of celebrated models, including the Tank Américaine, designed in 1987, and the bracelet-design Tank Française, launched in 1996.
While Cartier mined its rich heritage, French designer Richard Mille blazed a trail by presenting his entire presentation in 3D. It could have seemed all too gimmicky, but in fact it made perfect sense to view watches this way. Visitors watched giant digital watch dials linger in the air, rotating slowly to allow for a detailed view of inner and outer workings. The presentation of the RM052 Skull Tourbillon, with its 'ribcage' skeletonised movement, made a memorable art-meets-horology moment.
Elsewhere, complications - those very technical watch additions such as tourbillons and minute repeaters - became a familiar motif as brands like Jaeger-LeCoultre and Van Cleef & Arpels sought to display their technical know-how. Compelling decorative techniques - enamelling, straw marquetry, tessellation and stone setting - were also popular themes.
The mood was surprisingly upbeat. And why not? Whereas last year's SIHH played it safe, highlighting sure-to-sell looks, this year there was a sense that the brands embraced their invention and artistry to keep ahead of the game. Time after time we were shown some of the most creative watch designs in years.